16 December 2007

La Bohéme– Hungarian State Opera House, Budapest – 9th December 2007


Act I
A consumptive seamstress called Mimi, comes upstairs to get a light from the poet Rodolfo. They fall in love.
Act II
Everyone except Alcindoro has a good time at the Café Momus on Christmas Eve.
Mimi and Rodolfo don't separate.
Act IV
Mimi dies.

Its Holiday Time – and time for the annual endurance test; opera. It’s something I have to suffer for the sake of peace, quiet and maybe a historic garden to mooch round. (Last year, for instance, the annual endurance test was 4 ½ hours of Handel for chrissakes – but I traded that off for the Alhambra in early summer 2007) But, in Hungary in the middle of December, there’s not much happening on the horticultural front, so CBB won this trip hands down. To be honest we really only bought these tickets because we thought that we couldn’t get into The Nutcracker the following day. But then we found we could do both. So Bohéme it was – even though the Hungarian title of Bohémélet makes it sound either like a very small Bohéme or an omelette made with poverty stricken Parisian artists. “Two students or three, Monsieur, in your Bohémélet?” “Four please, and a pretty but consumptive needlewoman from the garret downstairs”.

I must admit that my interest was piqued by a tour of the opera house that afternoon, during which we managed to catch some of the set being installed for that night’s performance. The guide said that their set dated from 1936 and was the oldest in their collection. We were suitably impressed – but it wasn’t until we started looking at the pictures in the programme that we realised the whole production dated from 1936! From the set through the direction and lighting right down to the same costumes! Of course, it may be argued that “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” but come on! 70 years in the repertoire! That’s older than The Mousetrap! The thing only premiered in 1926! CBB settled down with that “I’m seeing an historic performance” look on his face and I knew I was in for a long night. The fact that it was in Italian with Hungarian surtitles just added to the surreal feeling. I comforted myself with the fact that I had bested CBB with the question “What is the name of the picture being painted as the curtain goes up?”. Answer came there none and I think he was a little pissed. Tee hee. Email me if you know the answer!

But you know, it was pretty. Like something off the lid of a chocolate box wrapped in sugar pink ribbons. Bohéme as you expect it to look. The first set, the garret, didn’t take up the entire stage like it so usually does (bloody big attic, you always think) but was a small “island set” against an enormous backdrop of the Paris rooftops. In fact, so small was it that the singers really had a lot of difficulty remembering their lines and not bumping into the furniture. And the costumes were pretty and Mimi (Klara Kolonits) wasn’t fat and past it, but slender and quite cherubic, even if her ginger wig did look a little like Shredded Wheat. And the diction was good and the sound wonderful……so why couldn’t I engage with it? Why did it leave me completely unmoved, even during the “Soave fanculia” duet? I have really no idea.

Again, the set for Act II was everything you expect – a small square, wrought ironwork, a red café awning, little bentwood chairs. Trouble is, there were so many peasants, hot chestnut sellers, soldiers, prostitutes and Parisians in General on stage they had barely room to move – and I was particularly amused to spot that practically everyone who drifted off stage, drifted back on again not more than 10 seconds later so that their numbers never decreased. There was also some spectacularly self-conscious “acting” going on – particularly from a couple of teenage girls who totally overdid the “We’re warming our hands over the chestnut brazier” bit for so long that I eventually couldn’t take my eyes off them. Everybody looked well nourished and clean, even if you did have to doubt their sanity for strolling about on Christmas Eve in their day clothes with just a scarf or shawl on. I also got a great deal of pleasure in this act from Cleo Mitilincou who played Musetta in the style of one. E. Whittlesea of my acquaintance and greatly resembled her too. She held the stage magnificently all through the act, but I thought it a great pity that she was dressed like an orange and yellow silk chicken (far too much marabou, darling) when something nonetheless flashy but more appropriate for the winter season would have been a better costume idea. Anyone dressed like that on Christmas Eve would have frozen her nipples off! But, apparently, that's what Musetta wore in their 1936 production, so.....

The set for Act III was the kind that makes the audience go “ooooooooh!” – a snowy street on a February morning, with a perspective of gas lamps winding into the distance, and all surrounded by bare and snowy boughed trees; a Parisian Narnia, almost. It was stunningly lit, and had obviously been created at the time when a set designer was a draftsman first and an artist second – so accurate was the perspective that it was an effort to “read” the set as two dimensional canvasses. It was easier just to sink into it visually. When the gentle flurries of snow started to fall, I felt a big lump in my throat. Call me old fashioned, but it was truly beautiful and the kind of stage set you just don’t see anymore.

Scene IV was the garret again, although “boxed in” on all sides and no backdrop. I thought Mimi’s pink winceyette frock was dreadful with her ginger wig, and she must have caught a form of consumption that left no visible trace because she looked just as chipper as before. But again, for some reason, I just didn’t engage with it. Her death left me relatively unemotional, even though her performance was superb. But then, its well known opera just ain’t my thang – even if it is this pretty.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with Russell that the stage sets for La Boheme were excellent, even the garrett in the first seen which he didn't like. My only previous opera experience in the former Eastern Europe was in Prague which really was second rate, so I was not expecting much in Budapest. However the quality of most of the singing was magnificent and unlike Russell I found the whole performance most moving.
Pity you don't like opera Russell, but then again I fall asleep if I'm ever forced to go to the ballet.
Just as a footnote, the Budapest Opera house interior is one of the finest I have seen.